The subject of autonomy is one about which my feelings and opinions are characteristically ambivalent.  Much depends on what one means by autonomy.  I general, I support the right of smaller regions and peoples to be free from despotic and tyrannical imperial rule over them, but without any sanguine belief that they, in turn, will not often face legitimate efforts at autonomy by still smaller regions and people who they oppress in turn once they are free from oppression themselves.  There are few stories more common than that of nations which strive mightily to break the yoke of oppression and domination over them and then place that yoke on others.  During the American Revolution, in fact, it was commented truthfully but not kindly by British observers that the cries for freedom came most loudly from the hypocritical mouths of slave drivers and this history is by no means unique.  My lack of support for the Confederacy, a rare exception to my general favor of independence movements, comes precisely because that wicked regime (like the regime of Nazi Germany) explicitly set as its cornerstone a doctrine of racial superiority and rebelled precisely so it would be free of restrictions in oppressing others, rather than simply oppressing others as an effect of being flawed ordinary human beings unable to handle power and deal with the responsibility of ruling over others who are different from oneself, which is a common enough and lamentable enough situation.

But I am strongly opposed to the root meaning of autonomy as its word means, and that is self-law.  While I greatly support freedom from oppressive human authorities, whose flaws and shortcomings are obvious and whose continual desire to usurp divine prerogatives knows no boundaries, my opposition to autonomy on principle, at least where it means that people consider themselves their own source of law and authority, springs precisely from the same opposition to the usurpation of divine prerogatives from which springs my general hostility to tyranny and despotism in authorities.  Both rebels and tyrants frequently share the same problem, and that is a desire to eclipse the divine lawgiver as the source for authority in one’s life, which leaves me free to oppose both without any sense of inconsistency in so doing.  After all, we are not the sources of law.  We are instead accountable to a great many others for our behavior, whether it be civil or institutional authorities, or authorities within the family or community, and inescapably and ultimately to God in heaven above.  Because we are under judgment for what we do and how we behave, we are not the source of the law which governs over us.  We can choose whether to obey or disobey it, but we cannot choose whether or not we are subject to it.  Whether we submit willingly or suffer just punishment as rebels against that invincible if patient authority, that authority remains over us just the same.

Therefore, it greatly puzzles me that someone who I happen to know who belongs to a somewhat more authoritarian Church of God than I do has spent so much time on a social media platform in which we are friends talking about the subject of autonomy and praising it.  This longtime acquaintance of mine happens to work in the world of business as a coach and consultant of sorts and is the sort of sanguine person who would tend to think highly of the choices she would make as an autonomous person.  Perhaps she does not reflect upon the limits and boundaries of autonomy or think of it primarily not as a matter of taking responsibility for one’s deeds but as claiming for oneself the role of determining one’s own moral standards and rejecting any attempts at external restraint and authority over one’s conduct.  If one is a moral person whose capacity for self-restraint is high, one can safely be free, because one’s freedom will not lead to the exploitation and suffering of others.  Yet it is often those people whose conduct is conspicuously less than moral that are the loudest voices in favor of liberty and freedom from constraint.  As is often the case, I find my own distaste and even revulsion at abusive and unaccountable authorities countered by an awareness of the need for accountability and respect for law and authority that restrains us from the evil we would otherwise commit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word autonomy never appears in the Bible.  This absence is part of a general lack of interest that the Bible has in our own contemporary search for political solutions to moral and spiritual problems, suggesting our search is a vain and futile one by implication.  Moreover, if one takes the Bible honestly, one does not find a great deal of support for contemporary searches for autonomous individuals who seek to escape accountability to higher powers.  Although the ideal biblical society is one which appears to be a libertarian paradise compared to our own contemporary realms of overregulation and overtaxation, it is one in which church and state and family provided considerable restraint on behavior, and where there was an awareness that while people were free to choose between obedience and rebellion, life and death, blessing and cursing, they were not free to determine the consequences of those actions or the legitimacy of their actions, but rather to accept the consequences and repercussions of their behavior in light of an external and eternal standard by which we are all to be judged, with mercy, but judged all the same.  To the extent that one has accepted the authority of God and of His law, one has already conceded that one is not autonomous.  To be sure, this does not solve all problems as relate to authorities, such as the possible need of lesser authorities to interpose themselves against tyrannical authorities that exceed their God-given boundaries, but it does remind us that we are subject to law and not the sources of its authority and legitimacy.  And since we are subject to an external standard of judgment that does not come from us, we are therefore not autonomous.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to αυτονομία

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Intelligently approached! A person who claims to be autonomous implies that the standard of judgment also lies within him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Absolute law carries absolute consequences. Even absolute rulers are subject to the laws that sustain the universe. They may impose their own “self law” but they fail to escape absolute judgment. It is ironic that most people who claim or wish for autonomy fail to see self-judgment as the flip side of the same coin. Self-law carries huge responsibility.

    • Yes, self-law carries huge responsibility, but I don’t tend to think of those who are most ferocious about their supposed autonomy being the sort of people who are most critical of themselves as well.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    That’s exactly right. That’s why the mandate of minding the beam in one’s own eye before reaching for the speck in others’ is given. We might not think that this saying is related to autonomy, but it is. Those who are mindful of their own stores tend to be the most cautious about claiming their rights. They have a more thoughtful worldview–not a concentrated self-view.

    • Yes, that is precisely the case. Self-awareness and self-centeredness are generally contrary to each other, since our awareness of ourselves will include an awareness of where we struggle and fall short and a proper understanding of how we fit in with those around us.

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